When I was growing up, I knew it was summer when I woke up and found a scrap of writing paper on the placemat next to my breakfast:
Job List: Voo
1. Weed the potted plants on the deck
2. Dust the living room
3. Empty the dishwasher
4. Read for 30 minutes
My mom always left us small lists of chores like these to complete in the morning before she would cart us off to the community pool in Cary, Illinois.* I was small and a girl and lucky, because my older brothers would get the less desirable jobs, like sweeping out the garage or mowing the lawn. And while watering plants and cleaning out the microwave certainly weren’t on the top of my list, I never really complained about the thirty minutes reading, which was always included last.
Because, you see, I have always been an English person. And I always had Caddie Woodlawn or Ramona Forever waiting upstairs, next to my canopy bed. (Oh yes. The canopy bed.)
Despite my destiny as an English person, I was never horrible at math.** I slogged my way through AP Calculus in high school, sometimes surviving the class period only through the mercy of notes Bee and I passed surreptitiously between clsses or through the lilting corniness of Mr. Hazen’s voice. I certainly don’t need differenial equations to negotiate my everyday life, and I suspect that those who struggle with reading comprehension and writing suffer humiliations that I don’t. But I was chatting with the other tutors at the HCC Writing Center on Friday, and I suddenly remembered the rocket ships.
The rocket ships must have been in first grade, because I was attending Liberty Elementary School. My teacher there made them out of red, white, and blue construction paper and arranged them in a makeshift solar system in the hallway outside our classroom. She wrote each of our names on a rocket in those cutsey letters with a bubbly cartoony dot at each turn. But don’t let the lettering fool you. These are math rocket ships, meant to measure your success in flashcard time trials. Everyone started off on Earth, but as you passed each test you would visit a vista of interesting space destinations. A cratered, winking moon. A lumpy, unexpectedly bright purple saturn. A comet trailing sad, wilting party streamers.
But math made (and still makes) me nervous. I don’t like to be rushed through any arithmetic, even simple addition. And what’s the hurry, anyway?
So my rocket ship remained earthbound, languishing somewhere on the coast of Florida while others blasted off to more interesting locales. I don’t really remember how long I was grounded, and it probably wasn’t nearly as long as it seemed at the time. But I do remember take off. Somewhere among the old family photos in North Carolina is a picture of me in pigtails and elastic-waistbanded jeans, standing on tiptoes to land my rocket ship, backed with linty peeling masking tape, onto the surface of a two-dimensional moon in absolute triumph. Absolute triumph.
When I first remembered my exile on the construction-paper earth, I was a little indignant and briefly climbed up on a soapbox, raving against teachers who display their students’ weaknesses and failures in the hallway. It’s like displaying for casual passerby the D+ book reports with smudged pencil dawings and dusty footprints alongside the As, accompanied by diaoramas and Crayola markered illustrations.
But I’ve changed my mind. And this is why. While at Dickens Universe, I told a professor from a different university that it had taken me two application cycles to get into a good graduate program with funding. And that the experience, while horrible in its own way, wasn’t so bad, because it transformed my perspective on rejection. So when the first journal I sent an article to said no without even allowing the ink on my manuscript to dry, I printed out a fresh copy and put it back in the mail to another journal, which accepted it immediately. This professor at Dickens Universe told me that this is a skill — the ability to get bluntly rejected and keep going anyway — and that as someone who possesses this skill I’m likely to succeed in academia. I suppose this is all very hokey, the whole trite “get up and try again” thing, and depressing, because the whole anecdote implies that academia, my chosen career, is full of blunt rejection. But remembering this conversation makes me feel good when things get too hard, too complicated, too much.
And it makes me wish I still had my first-grade rocket ship to remind me that really, it will happen. And when it does, someone will be there to take a picture as I slap that sucker to the wall.
* This was one of those huge community pools — well, it seemed huge to me, but I was smaller — packed with kids and serviced with a snack bar where an indifferent teenager served Push-Up Pops and Drumsticks through a window. They would fly a flag outside in the parking lot when the weather was questionable. Each color meant something different: pool open, pool closed, swimming suspended until the weather clears. My dad used to joke that a puce flag would indicate that there were nerds in the pool.
** Until now, when I need the calculator on my laptop to add my water bill to my rent.